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Writing dystopian stories while in a dystopia

This is a strange, strange time in history. Regardless of where you happen to live right now, you’re stuck in this moment with the rest of us. We’re all holing up our homes, venturing out into the world hesitantly with masks, and sanitizing cautiously when we return.

We’ve all been exposed to the fallout from COVID-19, and I won’t make light of the situation. This is serious stuff. I truly hope that you and yours are as safe and as healthy as possible. If you’ve experienced loss in any way, you have my utmost sympathy. These times are strange, indeed.

As writers, and certainly as writers who may skew toward darker fiction from time to time, that leads to a natural question.

What does it mean to write dystopian fiction while living in a dystopia?

If you want to split hairs and suggest that this isn’t a dystopia, then I won’t argue with you. Your situation might be different than others, and if you’re doing relatively well, then I wish you continued health and safety. However, the world is changing in unprecedented ways, and there are certainly a large number of people profoundly affected. It often feels like a story, and not the one we would have chosen if we had a choice.

So what are writers to do? Is it tone-deaf to write about a fictional pandemic while the world faces a real one? How can we write about people clustering up in groups and living their life while we’re hearing stay-at-home pleas from health officials worldwide? And how can we find the motivation to write when things feel so strange?

Fictional stories help us explore factual situations

There are plenty of current anecdotal examples where agents are turning down dystopian fiction outright. Can you blame them? Readers are more likely to enjoy a dark story when there are moments of light in their life. The safety of a shallow end makes the deep end more exciting.

That doesn’t mean that you should stop writing dystopian fiction, or that you should stay away from a viral antagonist. You should tread carefully though. This article about how fiction changed after the 9/11 attacks on New York City provides some positive examples of storytellers who found new ways to explore trauma, as well as some negative and exploitative ones that didn’t age as well.

Instead of writing a story about a group of people ravaged by some dreadful virus that jumped from animals, why not use the situation as a lens to explore the real emotions that fall out of a situation such as that?

Let people live through this moment in the way they need to. Consider providing characters who can show how others, whether real or not, live through the moment in their own way. Don’t be prescriptive or self-serving, but try to find unexplored emotions and create new and unique storylines.

There’s always a reader

If you know that the story you’re working on is the one you need to write now, don’t fret. This might be because this is the genre that speaks to you as an author, or it might be because you’re already forty-nine thousand words into a fifty-thousand word novel.

Don’t worry. There are always readers looking for writers.

Worried that you might be hitting too close to the news? Why not explore the genre definition using a site like TV Tropes and see if you can pivot slightly away into something that will let you tell your story differently?

The “dystopian fiction” genre is vast. Not all dystopias involve viruses, and not all viruses lead to dystopia. Consider how your work narrows down to a specific area, and find a market or a platform that will allow you to find readers who are looking for what you can offer.

Write what you need to write

At the end of the day, however, you’re a writer. Writers write.

If you’ve got an idea that drives you, let that idea blossom. If the work is fulfilling, the writing can be a form of therapy. And if the work is honest, your readers will notice.

If you have a story that needs to be told, you should write that story. Even if you decide not to publish it, the practice of your craft will ensure that you keep growing.

What’s the worst case? If you get a thousand words into your story and feel like it’s not working, you’ve still written a thousand words! There’ll probably be a few ideas in that draft that can be excavated into a new story. And if you hate the whole thing? At least you made something that you felt you needed to. Maybe this will help you move on to the next project.

As storytellers, we have the ability to transport readers into new situations, and to help them explore their own emotions in a safe space, even if that’s through the lens of a dystopian landscape.

Whatever happens, please be safe, and please keep writing.